Like many in the conservative Protestant Anglophone world, I woke up today to the sad news of J.I. Packer’s death. He leaves behind his wife Kit, his three children Ruth, Naomi, and Martin, and two grandsons. Inevitably there will be many pieces written about him however we should not forget that he was also a family man; Dad, Husband, and “Papa” to a family whose grief is understandably much greater than those of his spiritual sons and daughters of whom I count myself. May God be with them in this time of grief. Nevertheless, the first thing I said to myself was “Thank You Lord” – thank you for the life that Rev. James Innell Packer lead and the example he gave to me and the church.
The first book I ever read by him was Knowing God upon the recommendation of a pastor at my then church. Having read it slowly between 2012 and 2013, I concluded with the realization that this is what I had needed from the very beginning as a new believer. I like to joke that he put everything within my mind in its proper place; that the furniture after conversion was all there but that the telly was in the loo and the chairs were on top of the table! There really is no other book besides the Bible that I would say has had a more profound effect on me. So profound that when my atheist friend was converted, the first thing I decided to buy for him as a Christmas gift was an interactive version of the book where he could reflect upon it in writing as he read along. He too eventually found Knowing God to be an incredible resource for his journey with God.
Not only did he help me rearrange my doctrine appropriately, but it was Knowing God that really set me onto the path towards Reformed theology. Having read Ephesians, Romans and frankly speaking the rest of scripture, I had the knowledge and assented to the basic truths of Reformed theology as true and Biblical yet I had not committed myself to this frame of thought.
In those heady days, we were scrambling for the latest resources through the blessing of the internet, attending Christian conferences and meeting like-minded people at forums such as The Meaty Forum, Grace and Truth Conference and the like. At that time the Proclaim Conference at Emmanuel Baptist Church hadn’t started yet. A lot of people were listening to Christian rap artists like Shai Linne and others. Inasmuch as this was all great, my spiritual journey was slightly different and as a metalhead, I frankly at times felt like some things were a bit over my head culturally speaking and found it difficult to relate to the evangelical young adult crowd in Nairobi.
So even though I appreciated it all and was edified by it all to a degree, ultimately my Reformed theology journey really began with the writings of J.I. Packer more than any other media. Equally crucial in arriving at a proper understanding of the Reformed tradition was his little booklet introducing John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ which firmly convinced me of the doctrine of definite atonement. And just as with most who have read his little booklet, I am still yet to read the book to which it was an introduction!
Soon after, I read his book “God Has Spoken” and was yet again helped immensely by his doctrine of scripture which helped to extract false ideas I had about the inspiration of scripture while introducing new important ones that are central to the interpretation of scripture. One thing that I did recoil from at that time however in the book was the notion that consistency in scriptural interpretation demanded a paedo-baptist view of baptism. I could not wrap my mind around the fact that a man as gifted and helpful as J.I. Packer would still embrace an “absurd relic” such as paedo-baptism. Little did I know that yet again, Dr. Packer would lead me gently by the hand into another world, into classical Reformed theology. A world in which I would not only enter but make a home in.
On my book-stand an arm’s length or so away from me as I write, are two more books from Dr. Packer that I know will yet again eventually become signposts in my spiritual journey. Yet for all that he has written, I am even more grateful for his steadfast character in times of testing and his desire to speak to the pew rather than the academy. Not because the academy is to be eschewed, but rather because on that pew is the church; from the academic to the barely literate, from the wealthy politician to the poor widow and Christ’s call to Peter and to us all is to love him by feeding his sheep. ALL his sheep.
As I think of his entering into glory it also seems to me to be the end of a particular era; one defined by him along with Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott. Three men who have had immense influence upon modern conservative evangelicals – an influence felt even here in lowly Kenya. A common feature among them as I think about it was the sentiment that in their addresses to British society generally speaking, lay a perception of it as being somewhat catechized enough to at least have a Christian framework in mind no matter how flimsy that framework may be.
With the increased secularization and multiculturalism of modern Britain it can no longer be assumed that the average British citizen has any Christian framework whatsoever. Possibly this may have been the impetus for Packer’s writing on catechesis. As I consider the following generation of British theologians, I do however see Alistair McGrath, Sinclair Ferguson, Alistair Begg, Michael Reeves, Derek Thomas and Lee Gatiss among others. The flame of Reformed orthodoxy has not been totally extinguished it would seem.
As far as widespread influence is concerned however, it would seem that the other torch he carried; an apologetic heart for the pew, uniquely marked by clarity and depth is presently being carried most notably in my opinion by Dr. Michael Horton. However, he belongs to the URCNA denomination in America; a country seeking to follow in Britain’s secularization footsteps albeit at a faster pace but which still bears the assumption mistaken as it often is, that a Christian framework is still accessible to the average citizen. British society seems to be past the age in which it could produce a self-conscious Anglican the likes of Packer. Then again, there could only ever be one J.I. Packer. The present society poses its own challenges unlike its predecessor for which God as always, entrusts capable men.
The greatest influence as far as an assessment of myself is concerned however, was the character of the man which cannot go unconsidered. Packer’s character quite frankly, has greatly encouraged me in my ministry in that although I have been prodded in the past towards academic theology, God in his providence has and is encouraging me to be in some way, the catechist that Packer was. Not necessarily through writing only but also by teaching Sunday school, catechizing children and to overall love the church “in the background” so to speak, without making a career out of it. Steve MccAlpine has a perspective on how he avoided the path of “a careerist” that I believe matches my own perception of his life. What I do know concerning his influence on my life is that I would not be the Presbyterian churchman that I am today had I not witnessed from afar the life and ministry of J.I. Packer.
Nevertheless, I hope to continue in my faith in the same way as our elder brother and father in faith who was a living witness to Christ-likeness; entrusting himself to God knowing that the God of all creation is just and good in all things.
So for all these things and more, I thank God for J.I. Packer and look forward to meeting him when Jesus returns.